Cremation alternatives 101: burial at sea

I alluded in past articles to the plethora of unique alternatives to the standard "urn on the mantle" for those families who choose cremation. One set of alternatives revolves around burial at sea, which, though not a new idea, has recently presented some creative new options for those families who choose cremation.

The tradition of burial at sea dates back to ancient times. Documented accounts of sea burials date back to the Vikings. In those days, the body was sewn into a weighted shroud, usually sailcloth. The body was then sent over the side, usually with some type of religious ceremony. Similar practices have been documented by most global cultures.

In modern times, burial at sea is common around the globe. For those who have served in naval military capacities, or for those who have an affinity for the ocean, sea burial is a logical choice. The U.S. Department of the Navy provides a wealth of information about procedures and requirements for full body, casket sea burial (

Full body casket sea burial is tricky, however. The procedures and policies one must go through can complicate the grieving and closure processes. Cremation sea burial, however, avoids some of the inherent costs associated with full body burial, and offers some alluring experiences.

Scattering is a common cremation alternative. For example, Sea Burial, LLC, ( based in New Jersey, offers a variety of dignified scattering services that are cost effective and handled professionally by a licensed Navy veteran.

It is important to note that while scattering carries profoundly ethereal connotations and appeals to many, it is not permanent, and leaves the family no tangible place to visit their loved one.

A relatively new twist on the scattering option is the biodegradable urn. There are a number of companies who make them, and the process for deploying them is quite simple. The cremated remains are sealed within the natural, organic biodegradable urn, which is then placed into the water by the family. In short order, the urn degrades and the cremated remains are "returned to nature." A great example of a company that creates unique and affordable biodegradable urns is Passages (

There are, however, several interesting and more permanent ocean placement options. You may have heard of the Atlantis Project, (, a new alternative resting place that promises to be the "City for Eternity," located off the coast of Miami, Florida. Plans for the project include a memorial garden for cremated remains, a large man-made reef, a destination for divers and explorers, and a place for commemorating mankind's accomplishments.

For those who wish to create a permanent resting place and make a lasting contribution to the marine ecosystem, Great Burial Reef, Inc., based in Sarasota, Florida (, builds living ocean reefs, and honors loved ones by permanently placing sealed urns containing the individual's cremated remains within the reef structure. Hand cast and engraved bronze pyramid urns are permanently sealed in niches within large concrete structures that, over time, become living marine communities. Families can participate in the placement of their loved ones through a special ceremony called The Memorial Experience, which provides the family the opportunity to board a charter boat and witness the actual placement and documentation of the precise GPS coordinates of their loved one's final resting place. With sites that are close to shore and fully accessible to divers, this alternative presents a profoundly eco-friendly, everlasting alternative.

Many choose sea burial and document their wishes in wills and other end-of-life documents. An equal number who have not pre-selected their final resting place are buried at sea based on the choice of their executor or family decision maker. Regardless of the method, a growing number of individuals are choosing sea burial as a cremation alternative, and given the consumer's stated desire for choices, it's incumbent upon deathcare providers to offer these alternatives as part of their presentation, and ensure that these wishes are acted upon. The learning curve is, in fact, quite short.

An important consideration of sea burial is the difference between at-need and pre-need. Intuitively, at-need scattering is relatively easy to arrange. At-need scattering services are available through a large variety of providers, most of whom advertise on the web. Google "sea burial" or "burial at sea" and you'll be surprised at the number of listings. Regardless of geography, there is likely a scattering service readily available in your area. Equally intuitive, though it is possible to pre-arrange scattering, it is not a common practice.

On the other hand, permanent ocean placement firms like Great Burial Reef, offer pre-need arrangements and services, including consumer financing options. At the direction and under the supervision of several governmental agencies, Great Burial Reef places large collections of reef memorials in the ocean en masse. Because of that, it is possible to purchase a reef memorial now, and be placed within it many years into the future. It is also easy to facilitate an at-need placement because the reef memorials are already underwater, waiting for urn placements.

Sea Burial is a dignified alternative for those who choose cremation. Whether the funeral director is guiding a family towards scattering, biodegradable urns, or permanent ocean placement, the associated costs are relatively low and can easily be incorporated into a full service plan. Relationships with these service providers are relatively easy to nurture. In many cases, the services provided are fully commissionable to the funeral director, as in the case of Great Burial Reef, which not only does most of the work, but provides a healthy commission to the referring deathcare provider.

In our next edition of Cremation Alternatives 101, we'll explore some unique cremation keepsake alternatives. I welcome your comments and suggestions.